Dirty Dozen: Our pandemic eating and masking habits are all over Canada’s shorelines

COVID-19 has changed so much in our lives, including how we litter. A report from Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup finds our pandemic buying, eating and PPE habits have been showing up on shorelines.  

woman collecting trash
© WWF-Canada / Peter Nguyen

At every shoreline cleanup, volunteers use an official data card to collect citizen science statistics about the types of litter they pick up. Almost every year, cigarette butts top the “Dirty Dozen” list of most commonly found items on Canada’s shorelines — and 2020 was no different in that respect.

But when breaking the data down by category, we found that the proportions of single-use food packaging items — bottle caps, beverage cans, coffee cups, straws and food wrappers — nearly doubled!

Food packaging made up 15.3 per cent of all litter collected in 2019 and jumped to 26.6 per cent in 2020.  

“We suspect the change may be one of the many implications of COVID-19, including more people ordering restaurant takeaway and consuming more individually packaged foods,” says Julia Wakeling, Shoreline Cleanup’s outreach specialist. 

Food packaging isn’t the only pandemic litter trend we observed in 2020. For the first time in the program’s 27-year history, volunteers reported finding masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE).  

“We didn’t have a category on our data cards last year to formally track the amount of PPE-related litter volunteers were finding, but we have added one for 2021,” adds Wakeling. “This year’s results will be very interesting.”  

We have some catching up to do

Fish, birds, turtles and other wildlife can mistake litter and plastic for food or become entangled. Every piece of garbage we remove from our freshwater and marine shorelines is one less piece that can harm wildlife.

With cleanups suspended for four months, and then limited to solo and single-household events, Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup volunteers weren’t able to participate as much as they’d like to. Armed with COVID-safe cleanup guidelines, Shoreline Cleanup hopes to make up for lost numbers in 2021.

Shoreline Cleanup is also looking forward to achieving a major milestone — it’s one millionth volunteer! Will it be you?

You can help keep litter out of nature by leading a solo, household or physically distanced cleanup in your community. Register at ShorelineCleanup.ca

Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, presented by Loblaw Companies Limited and Coca-Cola Ltd., is one of the largest direct-action conservation programs in Canada. A conservation partnership by Ocean Wise and WWF-Canada, Shoreline Cleanup aims to promote understanding of shoreline litter issues by engaging Canadians to rehabilitate shoreline areas through cleanups. ShorelineCleanup.ca